Monday 25 February 2013

Book Review - Bad Education

‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. Is this the proverb that inspired Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian? (See and ). That column, the book and the blog of the same name inspired the writers of Bad Education (edited by Philip Adey and Justin Dillon, published by McGraw-Hill) to provide a survey of what research studies actually say about education debates.

And the result is excellent. I hope other readers experience some blushing moments when they see that some of the myths debunked are theories that they have explained patiently to parents or colleagues (as I did, and have); myths which are exposed either as merely urban myths, or (no better?) as mistaken conclusions of too little evidence in the early evolution of the understanding of some areas of education.

The authors, mindful of their task, are careful to distinguish between the conclusions they can draw, and areas of mystery. There are some calls for more careful research, too. But the conclusions of Dylan Willam – the PISA studies suggest that teaching is slightly less good in independent schools on average than in state schools (p12), despite attainment being much higher in private schools – is an early indication that there are some surprises to come.

While the authors fall very occasionally victim to political correctness – the chapter on grouping by ability by Ed Baines suggests that, since it is disadvantageous for the least able it should be avoided, with no interest in any kind of Pareto optimality – the result as a book is hugely satisfying. Nowhere was this more apparent for me than the debunking of some modern variations of phrenology evident in some educational theory – particularly appeals to left brain/right brain stereotyping.

The last chapter of all is on dyslexia, and although a balanced, evidence-based approach is sought, the conclusions are highly controversial. It is hard to believe that the reason for leaving this topic until the end is anything other than the fear that, were it first, the book would appear to be living up to its title in a more literal sense to that intended.

On balance, I urge educators – Headteachers, curriculum directors and others – to read the book. For those short of time, I would recommend starting with chapters 12-14, which I found most stimulating. The book is a worthy project, and if that sounds as if I think it was better in conception and in realisation, then I have not communicated as well as the book does.

It’s bold, thought-provoking, instructive and – thanks to the word limits on the chapters that some authors lightly chide the editor for – surprisingly readable. Although even the paperback is over £20, it is worth it. I advise against the Kindle edition – you’ll want to lend it to others when you’ve read it!

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